My Documentary Fix

Last night, I finally got around to exploring what comes with Amazon Prime video, and it looks like that will more than suffice to give me my documentary fix. They seem to have a lot of the stuff that’s been on PBS, as well as programs from the production companies that supply the cable channels I used to turn to for that sort of thing.

I got sucked into a program about Hidden Dangers in the Victorian and Edwardian Home (or something like that). In it, a historian talks about all the “modern” (at the time) advances that were actually incredibly dangerous. Like using arsenic to get vivid dyes for wallpaper. That was a big reason why a vacation to the seashore was so reviving. It wasn’t so much the sea air as it was getting out of a house that was slowly poisoning its occupants.

The early days of having electricity in the home were apparently rather exciting, with unshielded wires and some really random appliances. Initially, there weren’t any wall sockets, just light fixtures, and there were adaptors you plugged into your light fixtures to plug your appliances into. One of the weirdest electrical appliances was the electric tablecloth: you could plug lights directly into the tablecloth. It seems to have been a thing that was done because it could be done rather than because there was a real need.

One thing I found really interesting—and I may have to rewatch it to take notes—was a little experiment they did on corset wearing. An exercise physiologist rigged up the historian to get data on heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, oxygen use, etc., and got baseline readings, then ran the same study on her while she wore a corset. She got dizzy and felt faint after doing the same kind of exercise she’d done easily without the corset, and the readings showed that her body was having to work harder while still getting less oxygen. I’m sure that people who wore corsets all the time might have adapted, but it does explain the amount of fainting that went on in Victorian novels.

Each episode ends on the ominous note that they didn’t necessarily know that these things were dangerous at the time, so what’s in our homes now that will horrify future generations? That does make you wonder. A hundred years from now, will they be aghast that we flooded our homes with WiFi?

One thing about getting my documentary fix through Amazon that concerns me is the likelihood that this viewing will be factored into their algorithm for what they recommend to me and whatever profile they have of me. I wish there were a way to make it clear that I am likely to watch a lot of stuff about Nazis and WWII not because I think it’s cool, but because it horrifies me and I want to understand more of the roots so we can do more to prevent it. I don’t know how it is in every school, but in my education, most of this stuff was just skimmed over or barely addressed in history classes. At least, I hope that’s what’s going on with the idiots now who put swastikas on stuff and give the Hitler salute. If they know in detail what that was all about and still do it, then they’re evil. But since there are idiots doing that, it’s even more important to study the real thing and find ways to keep it from happening again. Plus, I’m a writer, and it’s an excellent case study for villains and the people who stand up to them. Unfortunately, there’s no way to put that disclaimer on your search terms. It’ll be interesting to see what Amazon starts recommending that I buy.

writing life

Origins and Influences: Girl Sleuths

I’m still discussing some of my origins and influences — the things that played a big role in me becoming the writer I am today.

My musical theater phase never really ended, though I did sort of eventually grow out of putting on dress-up clothes and acting out my own stories to soundtracks (now I just put together a playlist and write the book that goes with it). But then I got to the point I could read novels, and I devoured them. I don’t recall paying much attention to authors or genres. I didn’t really think about types of books. It was all about subject to me. For instance, there was the horse phase, during which I’d go down the shelves in the library, checking out any book with anything to do with a horse in the title or a horse on the cover.

Or there was the witches phase, which ended up leading me to Nancy Drew. The witch phase came in second and third grade and mostly had to do with the TV series Bewitched. I moved to a new neighborhood in the summer before second grade, and I noticed that although there were plenty of kids to play with in the neighborhood during the day, the streets got strangely empty after dinner, even though it was still light outside and we didn’t have to be home until the streetlights came on. Eventually, people would come outside again. I learned when I tried to make plans to play outside after dinner with one of my friends that this was when Bewitched came on (in syndicated reruns), in the slot between the local news and prime-time programming. Apparently, this was mandatory viewing for girls in my neighborhood. I got sucked into it, and soon was joining my friends in trying to wiggle my nose to make things happen. That made me want to read books about witches, so I went down the library shelves, reading anything with “witch” or “magic” in the title. I don’t remember a lot of these, and I got derailed somewhat when I got to the K section and found a book called The Witch Tree Symbol. It had a spooky picture on the cover with an eerie symbol carved into an old tree.

Except, it turned out that the book wasn’t about witches at all. It was a Nancy Drew mystery taking place in Amish country, and it utterly captivated me. Not necessarily the story itself, but I wanted to be Nancy. She drove around in her sporty blue car with her best friends and had adventures. I became obsessed with Nancy Drew, reading every book I could get my hands on, from both the post library and the school library. I quickly learned, however, that I didn’t want to buy these books because the good ones were the old ones the libraries had. The new ones were different, and I didn’t like them much. Even if they were the same books reprinted, they had different illustrations that were very 70s, not at all like the 40s and 50s books.

I was far more interested in Nancy’s personal life than in the actual cases. I liked seeing her hang out with her friends, and I was intrigued by her relationship with Ned, though I didn’t understand why he went to college and she didn’t, even though she clearly wasn’t still in high school. For a while, I kept trying to find the last book, to see how things worked out, except it seemed there was no last book.

From Nancy Drew, I discovered other girl sleuths, like Trixie Belden, who was younger, and Cherry Ames, a nurse. When people talk now about needing strong girl role models in books for kids, I wonder what library they visited because I had all these people who allowed me to imagine what being an adult, or at least an older kid, would be like.

Strangely, there were fewer mysteries in adulthood than these books led me to believe.

Anyway, although these books didn’t necessarily spur me to want to write that kind of thing, I do think that intrepid girl sleuth character forms the basis for most of the heroines I write. I did make up some stories about Nancy and the others in my head, though I didn’t know what fan fiction was at the time and never wrote any of them down. I think I also did some mental “Mary Sue” stories, in which I imagined that kind of adventure with me (or a version of me) as the heroine.

And I’m not sure I ever got around to the “witch” books that came after the Ks.

writing life

Origins and Influences: Musicals

Last week, I found myself going down some mental rabbit trails about what got me started in writing, probably spurred by some questions that came up in my online chat with a school book club. Since kids always ask me about that, I thought it might be of general interest, so here’s the start of a blog series about my writing origins and influences — the things I’ve encountered along the way that captured my imagination in a way that helped shape or inspire my writing.

Oddly enough, the first thing that I think led to me being a writer wasn’t books at all, but rather musical theater, along with the Disney musical movies. Long before my reading skills were at a level where I could read books with any kind of in-depth storytelling, I was already into the stories of musicals. We had a lot of Broadway cast albums, and I had all the albums of music from the Disney movies. I remember being mocked in preschool when we were supposed to bring our favorite record, and I brought the cast album for Man of La Mancha.

But back in those days, there was no home video. The only way to see a movie was if it came to the theater or came on television. We also didn’t live in the kind of city that got the big touring productions (I saw my first real professional musical — a touring production of Camelot, with Richard Harris as Arthur — when I was in college). As a result, I hadn’t actually seen most of these musicals. I wasn’t exactly sure what the stories were about. Even with the Disney fairy tale movies, while I might have known the basic fairy tale, I might not have been entirely sure which characters were singing which songs and how that fit into the fairy tale (though I did have a few of the “stories and the songs” albums, which helped).

So, I had to make up my own stories to go with the songs. I wish I could remember some of the things I came up with. I’d either play out my own stories using my dolls or act them out myself, using my trove of dress-up clothes. Sometimes I’d mash them up and use songs from multiple musicals together. I didn’t think of it as writing as the time, since I wasn’t writing anything down, but I was creating characters and telling stories.

One of the few musicals I had actually seen was My Fair Lady, since they used to show that on TV every year, usually around Thanksgiving. When I was four or five, that was my absolute favorite movie, and it only occurred to me in the past week or so when I was thinking about all this that it’s essentially a Cinderella story — we’ve got an impoverished young woman who’s transformed to go to a ball, only it’s a professor of elocution rather than a fairy godmother who transforms her, and the outcome isn’t so romantic.

I’m not sure what influence musicals have on my current writing, other than that I do sometimes use music as inspiration for characters or plot points, and one of my brainstorming techniques is to put iTunes on shuffle and then try to think of how the song that comes up might relate to my story. But music did seem to spark my creativity and make me want to tell stories, and that seems to have had a lot to do with setting me on my current path.

Oddly, even though I’ve dreamed of doing musical theater since I was about three, I haven’t really done it. I was in one locally produced original musical when I was right out of college (the music was good, but the play was absolutely terrible), and I sang offstage backup for the church youth production of Mary Poppins a few years ago, but I’ve never been in any of those musicals I used to act out my own version of when I was a child.

writing life

The Whims of Success

While I’ve been working on ideas for promoting my books, I’ve found myself pondering the nature of fame and success. Quality, fame, and material success, and the trappings of all these, don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

For instance, I know of authors who are making millions with their independently published books, and yet they don’t seem to be at all famous. Their names seldom come up in discussions of those kinds of books. On the other hand, I’ve mentioned how surprised I was to learn that some of the people whose names always come up and who are treated as Big Names in the genre community don’t seem to be making as much money as I am, when I’m mostly unknown in that community.

There are people who started publishing much later than I did who are now big bestsellers and celebrities in the industry, while I’m still mostly unknown, and there are people I read when I was starting out who had really good books that won awards but who have fallen completely by the wayside and seem to have given up writing. I’m sure we can all point to mega bestselling books that really weren’t well written. Some of those mega bestsellers manage to sustain a career, while others don’t seem able to write more than that one story.

But I think this applies to other fields, as well. I was thinking of television series I enjoyed a decade or more ago. When there was an ensemble cast of more or less equally good-looking people, there were some who seemed rather talented and who had a lot of charisma, and I would have thought that those people would have been the ones to go on and become famous elsewhere, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, the least talented person is the one who keeps getting lead roles in TV series and becomes a star while the more talented person with stronger acting credentials ends up relegated to the occasional guest role. There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to who succeeds and who doesn’t.

The rather annoying thing about it all — and it is annoying because it’s not something you can plan on, create, or control for — is the role luck plays in all of it. It’s all about having the right thing in the right place at the right time. The only thing you can do is produce enough work of sufficient quality that the odds are better that you will have the right thing in the right place at the right time. You also have to have the goods to back up the luck. Getting that one big book deal because you had what they were looking for at the time they were looking for it won’t help much if you can’t write the next book or if you can’t adapt when the market changes.

Strangely, thinking this way makes me feel a bit better. Doing my part can improve my odds, but it’s not necessarily anything I’ve done wrong that’s kept me from going further. It may just be timing — Enchanted, Inc. came at the end of the chick lit wave but before the urban fantasy wave really got going. A couple of years earlier or later and I might have had a very different career.


Playing with History

I’m the weirdo who actually likes the spring time change. It seems to fit my body clock better. I’ll confess that I wasn’t exactly out of bed at the crack of dawn this morning, but I woke up at about the same time by the clock as I usually do, even though that time was an hour earlier. Tomorrow will be the real test since I stayed up late last night (for me).

The TV series Timeless was back last night, and they put it in the late slot, which shows that they weren’t paying attention last season. This was a show that got canceled and then brought back due to fan support, including some big-name fans (Mark Hamill was one of the big cheerleaders for the series). But most of the fans talked about it being a show they liked to watch as a family and how they used the bits of history as a springboard to exploring those events or people with their kids. So why did they once again put the show on late at night? Granted, it did go to some darker places last night, but still, one hour earlier would be a much better fit for a show that seems to be a family viewing favorite.

Anyway, this is a fun show for people who like history and/or time travel. I love watching the characters go all fanboy/fangirl over the various historical figures they meet, and they’ve done a good job of highlighting people who are generally forgotten by history or who don’t get full credit for what they did due to their sex or race. I feel very smug and smart when they deal with a period, event, or person I’m familiar with because of my own research and reading.

I mess with history by playing alternate history games — what would have been different if the British ruling class was ruling because they had magical powers? — but they do similar things with people interfering in history by using time travel.

But it meant I stayed up later than I usually do (by the clock — I guess I was still going to bed quite early by the time it was a few days ago), so I’m not quite back to my spring schedule.

It’s spring break, but the only way that affects me is that I don’t have children’s choir this week. I’m still working, plugging away at this book.


Getting Discovered

As an addendum to yesterday’s post, that “but/and so” thing is a good way to test your book because you can use it to make a kind of outline — the characters want THING, and so they do something, but something else happens, and so they must do something else, etc. It wouldn’t be a pretty synopsis, but if you can’t link the scenes with either “but” or “and so,” you need to rethink the scenes. I managed to fix that problem scene that I needed but that didn’t really fit by making it an “and so” and by having it lead into a “but.” And there was much rejoicing.

Meanwhile, I’m back to pondering publicity. I’ve become increasingly aware that I have an awareness problem. Quite frequently, I’ve noticed people asking for recommendations or making lists where my books would be the perfect fit or where I would think I’d be included, but I’m not mentioned (these tend to be venues where recommending your own works is frowned upon). It seems that people who read my books love them, but there are huge swaths of people, especially within the target markets, who don’t seem to have heard of me at all. And although publicity was my former career, I’m not sure how I can get noticed like that in the book world. The venues I’m able to reach have already been reached. I’m considering trying some new things.

Supposedly, newsletters are a great marketing tool, but to me, that’s preaching to the choir. You’re reaching the people who already care enough to sign up for a newsletter. I don’t subscribe to author newsletters and am swamped with marketing stuff in my in-box. These days, you can’t visit a web site without a pop-up inviting you to sign up for a newsletter, so I suspect the days of effectiveness are at an end. That’s why I don’t do a newsletter. I don’t like them, so I doubt I’d do it well, and there are just so many out there.

I have considered maybe getting into podcasting. I don’t listen to them because I’d rather read information, but statistics are showing that there are a lot of people out there who prefer to get information this way. I have a background in radio news, so I’ve got the skillset. I just wonder what I’d say — the same kind of thing I blog about? Read book snippets? Pop culture discussion? Is that something people would be interested in?

Ditto with videos. Again, within my skillset, but my impulse is that I’d rather read an article with the same info than watch a video, and generally if there is only a video, I’ll ignore it, but I’m probably an outlier there. Would it be kind of like a TV newscast, only about other stuff?

I’m terrible at social media because I tend to treat it like real-world conversations, except it doesn’t work that way. People tend to like those people who sit and listen and nod during conversations, but on social media, no one knows you’re there. I guess the “like” button is the equivalent of the silent nod, but I keep forgetting to use it.

And I’m still not sure how doing these sorts of things would end up spreading the word farther because the only people likely to watch or listen would be those who already know who I am. I must keep pondering the concept of discoverability.


And Then vs. And So

I had a big “click” in my head yesterday that was kind of exciting.

I’ve read a lot of books on the craft of writing, scene structure, etc., and I’ve been to a lot of workshops. I know all the stuff about how a scene needs to have a character goal, then some conflict and then lead into the next scene. I’ve just never been able to make all that work consciously. Yes, I’ve written a lot of books, and most of them have been moderately successful. People seem to like what I write, and I get good reviews. But I think I’ve mostly been doing it on instinct.

That may be the difference between those “gift” books and the ones that are a struggle. The gift books are the ones where my instincts are working and I’m doing it right without thinking about it. The struggle books are the ones where my instincts are failing me.

My click yesterday came from a Twitter thread in which someone was talking about how each scene needs to lead into the next scene with either “and so” or “but.” That means that the actions in that scene cause the events in the next scene to happen in some way. Either the character achieves his/her goal and it causes the next scene to happen or the character tries but doesn’t achieve the goal, and so something else happens. You have problems if your scenes are “and then” because it just means that the next event happens, not that the next event is caused.

I knew that. I’ve heard that a number of times before, but I don’t think it clicked for me until I started looking at the current project, and I realized that the difference between the original draft and the current version is that in the original draft, all the scenes were “and then,” with the protagonist being swept along by events. In the current draft, the thing I changed (not always on purpose) was turning all the scenes into “and so.” The scenes that are still iffy for me that I’m not entirely happy with are the “and then” scenes.

I didn’t actually dance around the room, but I sure felt like it. The clouds parted and sunlight streamed in. There are still other things to fix, but if I can fix that much, it will make a huge difference.


Gift Books

I’m still slogging away through this rewrite. Normally, I’m a fan of writing straight through, then revising, but since this is well beyond a first draft, I figure I need to get it right before I move ahead, and since I needed to make some changes in the past to set up what’s about to come, I figured I might as well go back to the beginning and do another pass.

I think this draft is working. There’s one scene I’m waffling about, though. There’s not a lot of tension or conflict in it, and it doesn’t progress the plot, but the outcome helps take care of a bit of “business” to ease things in the future. I guess I’ll leave it in for now, and I might be able to fix it either by thinking of a way to make it fit the plot or by finding a way around the business part. I also kind of need it to help kill time — the characters have to fill a couple of hours before the next thing can happen, and they’re at a point in the story when I don’t know that I can just say “a couple of hours later …” This scene helps fill nearly an hour in story time (in a page or so) and explains what they’re doing.

Some books are gifts from above. They just seem to spring into existence fully formed, and I feel like I’m merely taking dictation. I don’t have to make a lot of tough decisions about the story or the plot because things just happen and fall into place. Enchanted, Inc. and Rebel Mechanics were like that. Then there are books like this, where it’s more like sculpting a block of marble — I have to find the story that belongs to the concept by chipping gradually away at everything that isn’t this story. I think the core of the plot has been more or less the same the whole time, but the events carrying out that plot keep changing.

And still, I love it. I have to, considering the amount of time I’ve spent on it.

writing life

Meeting with Readers

Yesterday, I did my very first video chat! It’s like living in the future. I was the guest for a junior high book club meeting to discuss Rebel Mechanics, and since they’re in another part of the state, I visited remotely. It was nice because although I did put on a nice top and did my hair and makeup, I was wearing yoga pants and house slippers and sitting comfortably on my sofa. The sad part was that I couldn’t join the students afterward for tea and scones because they haven’t found a way to instantly transmit matter like that. I did join them in spirit with a cup of tea.

It’s fun meeting with readers like that because writing can be very isolating. Mind you, that’s also one of the things I like about it. I love spending my days at home alone, writing. But it’s also good to be reminded that there are people out there reading these stories, falling in love with these characters. There are often so many layers between writers and readers, and you write to please yourself first, then you may need to get an agent to believe in you, and then you need to find an editor who wants to publish the book. You get feedback from a lot of people who are critiquing the book to try to make it better.

With all that going on, it’s easy to forget that the real point of doing this is for the people who read the book, who aren’t looking at it as a means to make money, who aren’t creating a spreadsheet about what money it may or may not make, who aren’t looking for flaws. They’re reading to enter another world, to experience things through a character, to spend time with imaginary people. It’s nice to be reminded of that because the business can be so overwhelming at times.

It’s especially fun with kids because their enthusiasm is maybe less filtered than you get with adults. They’re not experienced at being fans, like you see at conventions. Meeting a real author is still a really big deal for them, and I get to feel like a celebrity.

But now it’s back to work.


Seeking Escapism

A while ago, I mentioned something about wanting the cozy mystery equivalent of fantasy — some adventure, but without anything really bad happening to people I cared about. I know that editors and agents are always looking for books with really high stakes and lots of conflict and tension, but there are times when all that is too much and I just want something pleasant and escapist.

Right now, I’m reading a book that I’m really enjoying, but it’s the middle book in a trilogy, and it’s definitely got that Empire Strikes Back thing going on, where things are getting serious for Our Hero. Bad things are happening all around him, and he’s doing what he can, but he’s powerless to deal with a lot of it, and the people who can do something aren’t listening to him. You can see the train wreck coming.

And it’s almost too much for me to take. I ended up flipping to the end to see how it all came out, and, yep, Empire Strikes Back, where the “happy” ending is that the characters I like managed to live to fight again, but things aren’t good at all. That wasn’t quite reassuring enough, so I went to the Amazon page for the next book in the series to see if that description made it better. And then I found that there’s another trilogy involving these characters, so I checked those descriptions. I now finally feel reassured enough to forge ahead.

I don’t think I could ever sell low-stress reads to a major publisher, but I think I might try to put together some books — probably those fairytale-related romantic fantasies — that I could publish myself and market as what to read when you really don’t want to follow the heroes into hell. There still would be action and suspense, but with stakes that are more personal and less that the whole world is going to be devastated because the people around the incompetent ruler refuse to do anything about it because they have their own agendas.

Though “low-stress reading” probably isn’t the best label. Maybe “Escapist Fantasy.” I know sometimes “escapist” is used about fantasy and “light” reading as an insult, but sometimes, escapist is exactly what I want. I think in general that’s what I write, but it’s very, very hard to sell right now.